Visionary Architect Urges Action to Prevent Urban Chaos

From renowned architect Vann Molyvann’s book “Modern Khmer Cities” comes an urgency that, for anyone who has seen the construction and development of the last four years in Cambodia’s cities, makes it clear that time for decisions is running out.

If urban areas are to be more than problem-ridden agglomerations of little attraction, plans must be put in place to manage the increasing population and expansion of business, he said.

Born in Ream, which was then a part of Kampot province, on Nov 23, 1926, Vann Molyvann first studied law in Cambodia, and then obtained one of five scholarships provided by wealthy Cambodians to pursue his studies in Paris. After one year of law, he switched to architecture at the School of Fine Arts in Paris, and returned to Cambodia in 1955.

In 1972, Vann Molyvann moved to Switzerland with his family. He worked for the UN Human Settlements Program for 10 years before returning to Cambodia in 1993.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Vann Molyvann designed some of the country’s landmarks—from the Independence Monument to Chaktomuk conference hall and national theater to the National Sports Complex, the Council of Ministers building and Cambodian embassies abroad.

Research for “Modern Khmer Cities” began in 1994 when he started working on a book on ancient Khmer cities, which was published in 1999.

“While doing this study on country planning, I realized that there was no need to invent anything,” Vann Molyvann said. “The Khmer had been the best of farmers, and the system of prek and boeng, or canals and ponds, I mention in the book, truly is the irrigation system that we must perfect and continue to use.”

Nothing better has been invented, he said.

“This system now must be the engine for development in rural Cambodia.”

The same applies to Cambodia’s cities, Vann Molyvann said.

77,000 in 2000 and is expected to at least double by 2010. The number of foreign visitors, which was estimated at 180,000 in 2000, could jump to 1 million per year within four years. This growth will require about 120 liters of water per day per resident, and approximately 500 liters per day per tourist, Vann Molyvann said.

The iron content of Siem Reap water renders it undrinkable, and water from the pumping station installed by the French in 1992 is polluted by the city sewers, which makes it urgent to equip the area with an adequate hydraulic system, he said.

The Japanese plan, which was the result of four years of study, includes a series of wells that, if carefully monitored to prevent land sinking, would supply up to 12,200 cubic meters of water per day—an excellent plan for the region, Vann Molyvann said.

Japan intends to submit plans for this drinking water project to the Cambodian government in October. The Cambodian government is also looking into restoring the West Baray water system through a loan from the Indian government.

In the chapter on Phnom Penh, Vann Molyvann writes that, over the next two decades, authorities will have to cope “with extremely rapid population growth. It is not an easy task to transform a city originally designed to house only about half a million inhabitants into a city capable of holding 2 [million] to 3 million inhabitants.”

This is not only a matter of housing, he said, but also of creating “the foundations for an urban economy which can support such populations,” and linking it to Southeast Asia’s economy.

The city’s population was estimated at 765,000 in 1970, and may swell to nearly 2 million people by 2005, which will require three times the space it now occupies, he said.

Vann Molyvann became Phnom Penh’s consulting architect in 1956 while serving as the country’s urban-planning director. He served as minister of Culture, Fine Arts, Urban and Country Planning in 1993, and, in 1996, he initiated a study on the future of the city, which was conducted by the US organization Padco with the support of the Asian Development Bank.

So far, Phnom Penh has expanded haphazardly up to 20 km to the north, west and south, he said. Efforts to improve water supply, drainage and electricity systems have concentrated on Phnom Penh proper located within the old dikes in the city’s center, without extending to those new areas in which 40 percent of the population now lives.

One priority for the capital should be to set up infrastructure and services up to Takhmau, which is about 10 km from the capital. That city could eventually merge with Phnom Penh, Vann Molyvann said. Another priority should be to address drainage and flooding problems that plague the city.

Phnom Penh is located at the Four Faces, where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet to flow south into the lower Mekong and the Bassac rivers, forming a vast hydraulic system that covers the whole of Central Cambodia.

There has never been an in-depth study to determine water flow and changes in river course, such as the Bassac moving eastward. Such physical and mathematical models must be done by experts and tend to be costly, but they are essential to manage the territory and control floods that exceed 11 meters once every decade, Vann Molyvann said.

Finally, something must be done to reduce flooding west of Phnom Penh, which is one of the most populated and poorest regions of the country, he said.

Each year, people die in floods as the Prek Thnot River drains the eastern slopes of the Cardamoms and the Elephant Chain foothills, and flows through Kompong Speu province on its way to the Bassac River.

A 1992 study conducted by the Australian firm of Snowy Mountains Engineering Corp recommended reviving portions of the 1960s dam project on the Prek Thnot to provide flood control and irrigation for rice cultivation, Vann Molyvann said.

Regarding the future of cities in Cambodia, Vann Molyvann said that he remains “very pessimistic” that laws will be enforced. Zoning and architectural guidelines for Phnom Penh and Siem Reap exist, but are not being implemented, he said.

In addition, Cambodia needs to train a new generation of urban and country planners, Vann Molyvann said. Due to the decades of war and conflicts, Cambodia has to rebuild its human resources and put the necessary tools in place to manage its territory, he said.

In the 1990s, the biggest difficulty he encountered as minister of country planning was “the lawless speculators who attempted to contort or blatantly disobey rules and legislation,” he wrote in the book’s conclusion. Enforcing country planning takes political will, Vann Molyvann said.

This will must be based on understanding and conviction, he said.

“I always say that you cannot impose democracy on a country—a country must learn it by itself. Unless the education system teaches people the importance of their national heritage, urban-planning regulations will be seen as another set of constraints,” Vann Molyvann said.

“You can have the best regulations in the world, but if people don’t understand them,” there will not be a political will to respect them, he said.

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